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The Imagination of Mr. Gilliam

Terry Gilliam on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

The ex-Python discusses his latest film, his perpetually endangered career as a film director, and the magic of storytelling.

Four years ago, critics far and wide predicted the end of Terry Gilliam’s career after seeing Tideland at the Toronto Film Festival. Gilliam’s fantasy about the experiences of a young Western girl after the deaths of her junkie parents was labeled “an exercise in kamikaze auteurism” by the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, and the film’s distributor initially refused to release it.

Last year, Gilliam broke his back when he was struck by an auto while walking near his office in London.

But hear this, world: You’re not getting rid of Terry Gilliam that easily! Fast forward to September 2009, and Gilliam is back in Toronto with a new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. He shows no trace of either blow other than a slight stoop to his walk, which seems appropriate to his elfish mien anyway.

He laughs off the broken back with some tongue-in-cheek paranoia. “They almost got three of us, star, producer, director—that would have been tidy! But nature’s not as tidy as we would like it to be. A vertebrae was crushed really badly, but it qualifies as a broken back. It’s been almost a year. That’s the horrible thing about getting older—all the systems of your body don’t do their job properly. You’ve got to learn to find it funny, otherwise its unbearable.”

The producer was Bill Vince, who died of cancer in June 2008. And of course the star was Heath Ledger, who died from complications of prescription drugs in January 2008, during a break in the filming of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam is no stranger to troubled productions: His struggles with Universal Studios over the release of his 1985 film Brazil are legendary, and his 2001 production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was shut down after a few days of filming, sparking the fascinating documentary Lost in La Mancha. And those are only the most notable hard-luck stories in the career of the Monty Python animator-turned-filmmaker who has spent 35 years fighting to maintain control over the films he wants to make.

Gilliam and Ledger became friends when they made The Brothers Grimm in 2004, and it was the actor’s presence in Parnassus that helped Gilliam raise a budget for his story of an ageless wizard in a modern world that no longer values stories. When Ledger died, the financiers wanted to shut down production, and the devastated Gilliam was initially inclined to let them.

The film was saved with the help of Johnny Depp, who starred in Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When he agreed to help get the film completed, Gilliam realized that the sequences that remained to be filmed all featured Ledger’s character in fantasy worlds. Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell each filled for scenes that progressively strip away the outer layers of a character that was inspired by (and named after) Tony Blair.

Like any Gilliam film, Doctor Parnassus is not easy to synopsize. Stuffed with more ideas that you would find in a year’s worth of other fantasy films, it muses on the relations of reality to storytelling and good to evil, all the while indulging the filmmaker’s sense of visual play and even the odd Pythonesque flourish (for example, a chorus line of dancing policemen). Along with Ledger and his trio of surrogates, the cast includes Christopher Plummer in the title role, model Lucy Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, and Tom Waits in the role he was born to play, the devil.

My meeting with Gilliam was scheduled for the busiest day of the Toronto Film Festival, in the hotel that hosts most of the press events for the festival. Despite the incessant hullabaloo that makes you feel as if you’re in the center of a plague of locusts, Gilliam managed to find a quiet place to talk, on a patio that miraculously went unnoticed by the swarms of publicists and journalists.

At the age of 68, Gilliam has taken on a cheerfully grizzled appearance, as if in ironic comment on his image as a warrior against the film industry. With his graying beard he resembles Oliver Reed’s jollier kid brother, or perhaps an extra from The Lord of the Rings. He laughs a lot during the course of this interview, generally to indicate, well, what else can you do but laugh?

AV: There are a lot of digital effects in this movie, which you haven’t used previously—

Gilliam: I did, you just didn’t spot it because I was clever.

AV: Well, here you seem to really embrace the technology.

Gilliam: I’ve always used whatever technique works. The Brothers Grimm is full of digital stuff. Even The Fisher King—you see giraffes running, but those aren’t real giraffes! They’re in the background mixed with a real tiger moving around, and so you don’t spot it. To me making movies is like a magic trick: If I can divert your attention over there, I can do something over here. For Doctor Parnassus I wanted to be even less naturalistic, so CGI worked really well. I wanted to do worlds that worked more like paintings rather than a natural world.

There’s a lot of model work in there as well—there’s a scene with Jude and Andrew after the dancing policemen, where Jude tells supposedly the truth, the whole background is a model.

AV: I just thought that was digital.

Gilliam: It’s both. There’s a mixture of a lot of different techniques. Digital wasn’t able do what it does now, but now it can do what I used to be able to do with paintings. The problem with digital is that you get it done by a lot of people sitting at computers and you’ve go to fill in the background. They don’t look at the world, they’re looking at little screens.

AV: Has digital become too much of a good thing, the limitless ability to put anything on screen you can imagine?

Gilliam: I think limitless is a bad thing. Limits force you to do something more interesting. The problem with CG work is that the director is hardly involved, you farm it out to another group of people who do all the stuff, good or bad. We’ve seen so many things [in movies] that are effectively impossible and yet that we’re asked to believe in that I think something is subconsciously going on —you buy it for a bit but then…[He shrugs.] Come on! And when you actually see something that appears to be based on physical laws of nature, it’s a relief.

When I saw the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the climax with Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy as the ship is going down in the maelstrom, there’s no gravity in it, so there’s no threat. You’re looking at something that’s quite spectacular looking, but you’re not involved because there’s no reality, there’s no threat, none of the laws of nature that keep us vulnerable. You have to understand what you’re doing. You write a script with all these impossible things going on because there’s a way to film them. And then people go to see it and it encourages people to make more like it.

AV: And therefore it must have been right to do.

Gilliam: Of course it’s right, people want that, we make that kind of money, that’s what we do! And so we get another Transformers movie.*

AV: There’s an early scene with Dr. Parnassus’s beaten old horse-drawn wagon creeping down a very modern street in London, and it struck me as a representing these two styles of filmmaking, physical versus digital.

Gilliam: That’s all real. It’s not contrast, it’s the juxtaposition that makes that shot interesting. This wagon from another time, the 19th century, arrives in modern London and it doesn’t gel properly, no one wants to even notice. Our guy goes up on stage for the one drunk who’s even noticed it—most everyone else is walking past paying no attention because it doesn’t fit into their world view of what’s supposed to be interesting.

I’m intrigued by that because what people decide is interesting, what we should be looking at, what we should be running off to see has usually been told to you by marketing and merchandising forces. [He points to some artisanal concrete work on the patio.] This is amazing stuff—somebody did some design work, somebody spent time making the molds, as opposed to something that’s flat and put out by a machine. I’ve always liked craftsmanship, the tactile nature of things.

Where I do draw the line is the motion capture stuff. I’m not happy with this world that’s somewhere between animation and live action. I’m not happy because it’s too much under the control of the director—nature doesn’t get in there, mistakes don’t get in there, it’s all controllable. That’s the appeal for a lot of film directors, total control. Work nine to five, you don’t have to worry about the sun, the rain, the traffic. But it’s not animation, which is something being crafted here, something being crafted there, taking it and putting another body on it. Motion capture may be a useful tool in the future—if somebody gets run over by a car, then you can just do a CG version of them. We could have done that [to finish Heath Ledger’s scenes] but we didn’t.

AV: I wonder how long it will be before they start making movies with dead actors, putting, say, Cary Grant and Drew Barrymore in a movie.

Gilliam: It’ll happen. Why not? They’ve been doing it in commercials, and it’s great when you do it in a little thing like that, but somebody’s going to want to do it for real. It’s too possible to be done. It’s like, once you have nuclear power you have a nuclear bomb. So be careful, everything is a Damocles sword!

AV: In the Monty Python documentary that recently aired on the IFC channel, you talk about how you weren’t really comfortable working with actors on the first film you directed, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When did you start to get over that?

Gilliam: It was pretty early on with Jabberwocky, once I escaped the gang, the Pythons. [Veteran British character actors] Max Wall and John LeMesieur were bringing so much to it that I realized, “I don’t have to do that much. I don’t have to do everything anymore!” You get the right people in there and make sure they’re on the right wavelength, and they will do the work!

The one I enjoyed the most was The Fisher King because there are no special effects per se. I was just working with actors instead of worrying about all the other shit I would have to be dealing with. It was wonderful and it was easy. For a long time I didn’t know how you were supposed to direct actors. I thought all the great directors had some skills and secrets they had been trained in. I just discovered at some point that I was a good audience, and that makes the actors feel comfortable and loved and appreciated so, bingo!

AV: It seems inevitable that Doctor Parnassus is going to be promoted or at least received as “Heath Ledger’s last film!”

Gilliam: No, they did that with The Dark Knight, so we don’t have to do that! [He laughs.]

AV: Yes, but you know it can be done again. Do you have any control over the marketing of the film?

Gilliam: To a certain extent. We don’t want to do that. But I can’t control it, I can only put pressure on, which is what I’m doing. I keep saying in interviews, “Concentrate on what the story is” because I don’t want people rushing to see the movie and sitting there wondering, “When do we see Heath?” for the first 20 minutes. At one point we had the credit “A film from Heath Ledger and Friends” at the front of the movie, but it just didn’t work, because it was saying, “Keep your eyes open, he’ll be here soon.” And he won’t, there’s a way to go.

AV: There’s a scene with a parade of caskets that plays like it might be a subtle reference to his death. Was that added after you resumed shooting?

Gilliam: Everything you see was in the original script. The only things different were a scene with the drunk’s face in the opening scene changing [to match what happens with the Ledger character later in the film]—

AV: I didn’t see that.

Gilliam: You didn’t? [He laughs.] You’re not the only one—it pisses me off that we didn’t shoot that better. All the words were written—I didn’t know they were as prescient as they turned out to be. There’s one line where Parnassus says “This is a story about romance, comedy, a tale of unforeseen death,” and Chris didn’t want to say that. I always knew the scene on the bridge would be a shock for people [the first time we do see Ledger, he’s hanging by his neck from a London bridge], but that’s the film we agreed to make, and we made that film. The forces at work with Johnny and Colin and Jude coming in were extraordinary. I’ve always believed that every film has a sort of film god making the film, we’re just the hands that are writing it.

AV: If that’s true, you also must have an evil god looking over your shoulder making trouble as well. Your struggles have been written about so widely that your career has been pronounced dead over and over again. Especially after your last film, Tideland, which was so roundly despised that when it was shown here that I was afraid to watch when it came out on DVD. And of course it wasn’t nearly as shocking as everyone claimed.

Gilliam: I think it’s a wonderful little film, I put it up as one of my favorites. But it pushed a lot of buttons. It was meant to push buttons. I love how the media, they no longer talk about the film itself. They were so worried about my career, that I’m “doomed”? Oh, fuck off! This is what life does, you get trapped in certain stories. I’m trapped in, “Gilliam: The Curse.” I don’t believe it, but it’s good copy—it’s actually more interesting than the truth. It’s like Baron Munchausen: The lie might be better!

AV: Tom Waits is so much fun to watch as Nick, the Satan figure in the movie, How did you and he approach that part?

Gilliam: We didn’t talk about it that much. We spent time on the costumes, worked out what he was going to look like and how he was going to move…Tom wrote something he just sent me, with the devil musing on him and Parnassus, he just got into it. For me it was easy because his music is all that, it goes from tender and sublime and poetic to the darkest and most disturbing. Anybody who can encapsulate that in their work is just right for this part. It’s that relaxed quality he has—he moves so beautifully. You don’t want to think about that character, you just want to spend time with him. Nick and Dr. Parnassus are two old antagonists, they’re like an old married couple, they’re their only friends in the world and they’re supposed to be archenemies.

AV: Your daughter Amy was one of the producers for this film. Given the importance of imagination to your work since your earliest animations, I wonder what sort of bedtime stories you might have told her and your other daughters?

Gilliam: I’m a terrible father. I was always away making movies. I’ve tried to make up for it later. In Baron Munchausen, Henry Salt the theater owner and his daughter Sarah Polley, that’s me working out a father-daughter relationship and me feeling guilty about certain behaviors or lack of being there enough. I suppose these are my penance films.

Watch the trailer for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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